He was not in bed.
Cullen blinked a few times as the realization hit for several reasons. The first was the fact was that there was a hearth to his right, the embers inside of it off only just putting off enough to make the chill of the morning bearable. Second was that he was obviously on the floor not only from the hard surface digging into his shoulder blades despite whatever he was laying on but his proximity to the wooden beams of the ceiling. Third was that there was a warm presence curled up against his left side and that arm was also numb.
If the first two hadn’t thoroughly cemented the fact that he wasn’t in his own tent, the third on it’s own would have. And he had a feeling he knew exactly who that presence was.
Turning his head and looking down, it was indeed Meryell molded against his side with most of her body hidden underneath his coat. Her dark head was pillowed on his shoulder – likely the reason his arm was asleep – and he was vaguely aware of the sensation of her hand clutching his own. One of her legs was also tossed over his, almost high enough to be uncomfortably close to…things…but not quite. He still shifted as his cheeks blazed, rolling onto his side to try and keep her thigh from bumping into the half-hard length of his morning erection.
It was doubly embarrassing when her sleepy mind seemed to take his movement as invitation and snuggled closer, which put her even closer. Cullen swallowed hard and started to move to try and extricate her, resting his right hand on her shoulder, when a chuckle from across the room made him freeze. Slowly he turned his eyes towards Meryell’s bed, where Folke sat reclined with a book in hand and a pair of narrow spectacles balanced on his nose.
“Good morning, Commander,” commented the hedge mage mildly.
“F-Folke,” he replied and cursed inwardly at the damned stutter over the mage’s name. He wasn’t some nineteen year-old boy anymore! And Meryell was no girl child! Why in the Maker’s name did he feel like they turned back into such around Folke?!
The man chuckled and sat up, folding something into the pages of the book before he took off the spectacles and tucked them away inside his coat that was tossed over the end of the bed. Clasping his hands together, he leaned his elbows against his knees and pursed his lips. “Normally,” began the mage conversationally, “this is where I threaten to set your blood on fire or gut you like a fish if you hurt my girl.”
“Normally?” echoed Cullen, hoping his voice wasn’t loud enough to wake Meryell.
“Well, I think you are well aware as a former templar that I simply can’t set your blood on fire given my abilities. So I’ll have to settle for the gutting you like a fish threat.”
“You think I’ll hurt her?”
Folke’s eyes narrowed at that and he growled, “I think every man in her life but me, the Captain, and her blood father have hurt my girl irreparably. You aren’t the first man she’s wanted in her bed…but I think you might be the first in a long while that she’s wanted to stay there. Even though she didn’t say that out loud, I know my girl.”
Cullen flushed at the insinuation, flustered at the warmth in his belly posed by the idea of always being the one Meryell woke up next to. He then clasped his right hand behind his neck, rubbing the overly hot skin there in embarrassment, and said softly, “I would never deliberately hurt her.” Part of him wanted to ask what those other men had done, if they had hurt her physically, then decided he didn’t want to know. The rage the mere thought kindled in his heart was enough to make him want to strangle a man.
If he had not been aware before that he’d fallen for the woman next to him, he would have known right then.
“If you do, you’ll find me and a whole angry company of brothers and sisters at your door, Commander,” Folke hissed. He then eased himself off of the bed and carefully padded across the floor in only his stocking clad feet, bending to stroke his fingers through Meryell’s hair. She made a pleased noise, one that sent Cullen’s heart to pounding and made his groin clench up, and then the mage’s gaze caught his. “The company may be our family, Commander Cullen, but she is my asha’lan, my daughter. I take blood from those who hurt her.”
He flicked his eyes down to Meryell’s sleeping face and then Cullen lifted his gaze back up to meet Folke’s. “In the event that I possibly harm her,” he said quietly but firmly, “I will willingly surrender myself to your revenge, ser mage.”
Folke’s eyebrows rose at that and his mouth moved into what looked like the start of a whistle but he stopped himself before the sound could leave. “A templar giving himself into the hands of a mage, eh?” he queried.
“Meryell made note that you have…what was it…just enough magic to tweak the nose of the Maker?”
Now the mage laughed and he straightened before saying, “You’re a good sort, Commander. You should tell her about the lyrium though.”
Cullen gaped up at the man and Folke just laughed quietly.
“You think I don’t know lyrium withdrawal just because I never lived in a Circle? We’ve had templars in our ranks many a time, Commander, and all of the mages are taught how to help them through it as best we can. Even ones as weak as me. I’ve a few teas and poultices I can make for you and I can probably bother a few of the stronger varieties of potion out of Gil. She’s got a soft spot for you Ferelden lot since she was in the Circle there.”
Staring at him for a moment and trying to intake all of the given information, Cullen finally simply said, “Thank you. And I…will. Tell her, that is. Soon.” Likely today given the state he’d arrived in last night. The nightmares had come back in full force only a few nights after she’d left and the headaches had followed it, coming on slowly at first until they were full-on migraines through most of the day. It was why he’d set Rylen and Joane to training the men, excusing it as needing to catch up on paperwork. In reality, he’d spent those hours between trying to sleep and drinking in an attempt to dull the pain because his eyes swam too much to actually do any paperwork.
It had only been a few hours judging by the weak light coming in from outside the cabin but he already felt better rested. Not up to his usual par but…better. The headache from withdrawal still pulsed at his temples yet it was weaker than it had been the day before.
“Good,” Folke noted with a smile. He then turned to walk over to where his boots were sitting at the end of Meryell’s bed, pulling them on with the quick motions of a man who has rarely been anything but long on the road. As he finished, the mage picked up the book he’d been reading, tossed his coat over his arm, and said, “Good morning, Commander,” before he strode to the door and left.
Cullen just stared after him for a moment before he let out a huff of breath and let his head fall to the rug beneath him with a rather surprisingly solid thunk. As he winced, he felt Meryell shift and she uttered a low grunt as she blinked open her eyes. He blinked down at her, not knowing quite what to expect from her, and started to open his mouth but she beat him to saying something first.
“You look better.”
“I feel better,” he said with a small smile. Then he immediately flushed when she gave a wriggle and extended a hand out from underneath his coat to touch the backs of her fingertips against his forehead. When she smiled, all pleased, he asked jokingly, “Do I have permission to rise, healer?”
Meryell snorted and disentangled herself from him, sitting up to start combing her fingers through her unruly hair. Instantly Cullen missed the contact, missed the heat of her body…but he did appreciate the pin-and-needle sensation of blood flow returning to his arm as he opened and closed his numb left hand several times. After a few moments he managed to sit up and scrubbed his not currently useless hand across his face, grimacing at the feel of the thick stubble on his cheeks. His hands had taken up shaking so much in the last few days that he hadn’t dared risk shaving lest he end up inadvertently slitting his own throat.
She must have noticed his focus as Meryell turned towards him to say, “You look like a critter took up residence on your face.”
He blinked at her before scratching his fingers through the stubble again, not having thought it was that thick.
“You haven’t been shaving?” she asked then and Cullen just shook his head in response. Even as he knew now that Folke and the company had dealt with former templars – which meant Meryell had done the same – he still didn’t want to tell her what he was putting himself through. He didn’t want her to look at him with pity or, Maker forbid, disgust. With talk of lyrium came talk of templars and that invariably led to what he’d done as one.
The things he’d ignored. Had allowed. Had said. The things he had once believed without a shadow of a doubt of all mages, even ones as weak as Folke.
He did not want to see the affection in her eyes turn to disgust.
“Can’t,” he found himself saying thickly. He wordlessly held up his right hand where she could see it, the fine shakes already causing the appendage to shiver.
Her eyes narrowed and then Meryell asked, “What the fuck is going on, Cullen?”
The words caught in his throat and Cullen sat there staring open mouthed at her for a moment, his throat convulsing with the effort to both speak and not at the same time. He then impulsively reached for her hands with his, curling his larger fingers around her smaller and stroking his thumbs across the calluses that lined the curve between her own thumb and forefinger. Meryell’s fingers tightened around his own and she leaned forward, her voice gentle as she asked, “Talk to me?”
“You will think the worst of me,” he breathed as he bowed his head over their joined hands.
“How about you let me make my own fucking judgements?”
“Because I know,” he exploded, surprising himself even with the force of his shout. She seemed surprised by his outburst but not scared and Cullen looked away from her in shame. The word was thick on his tongue but he somehow managed to choke it out. “Lyrium.”
“Lyri…” began Meryell only for her voice to abruptly fade out. Her hands twisted around his as she freed them, her calluses dragging at his own as they caught against each other, and his heart dropped in his chest that everything he thought was coming to pass. Who could truly care for a lyrium addict, after all?
Then Cullen found his face being dragged upward by those same hands and her copper-flecked eyes were wide with fear as she stared at him.
“Felasil,” she hissed in Elven as her gaze darted over him, looking for what he knew not. He didn’t imagine that that particular word meant anything nice either. “You suffer through withdrawal without anyone else knowing?”
“Cassandra knows,” he offered weakly. “She is…she is watching me.” Technically Rylen also knew but he’d guessed while Cassandra and Meryell were the only people he’d told outright.
“Well I’m glad someone had the good fucking sense the Maker supposedly gave the lot of us to do so!” snapped Meryell. Her sudden ire then faded away and he was left looking at the fear in her eyes again, with absolutely nothing he could do about it. She stroked her fingers lightly across his face before she said softly, “I’m certain you know the risks but…why? Can I ask at least that?”
That was a question Cullen could answer.
“Because the Order was no longer something that deserved my loyalty.”
“No,” Meryell said fiercely, “that’s why you left the Order. I asked why you stopped taking lyrium. I know full well that the Inquisition could keep you supplied so access wasn’t the issue.”
Closing his eyes, Cullen just focused on his own breathing and her fingers that were still stroking his cheeks for a moment. He had to, had to take that time to find the words he needed. The words she needed.
She was his friend, his…something that was maybe more than that.
Meryell had told him things she’d shared with no one else in Haven. Did she not deserve the same in return?
Licking his lips, Cullen began by saying, “Lyrium is what keeps us bound to the Order, leashed to it and the whims of the Chantry as much as a mage is bound by us and their phylactery. To break with the Order really and truly, to be free of those chains, I had to stop. Even though it could kill me or worse. I would not, could not be bound to that life any longer.” He paused and shuddered before adding, “It took too much from me already. It betrayed utterly what I thought it was, what it stood for. I could not continue to serve knowing that.”
“I was…Kirkwall changed me, it made me who I am but before that I…” He let his voice trail off as he swallowed thickly. “You weren’t in Ferelden during the Blight. What did you hear about the fall of the Circle at Kinloch?”
“Nothing,” she replied. “Not really until, oh, the beginning of my third year in the ranks? That was when Gil found us. Before that was that it fell, the Wardens saved it, and anyone who’d been inside the Tower had died.”
A dark chuckle rumbled through him at that. It was true, though, wasn’t it? There had been two very distinct Cullen Rutherford’s in Ferelden that year: the one before the Tower’s fall and the one who survived it. By and large, they weren’t the same man.
“Is that what they say?” he found himself commenting with more than a bit of venom. “I understand them wanting to protect those of us that did but denying anyone survived seems a bit excessive.” Shaking himself, he moved on and asked, “And what does…Gil, was it…what does she say about it?”
He tried to remember the name, the face, of the mage as he recalled suddenly Folke mentioning that same mage as having been from the Ferelden Circle. There was nothing though, no recollection of her at all.
“That the Tower was taken by demons,” replied Meryell, her voice firm but her fingers quivered against his face. “She was one of the few who managed to make it to the door before the templars sealed it. After that, all she knew was the aftermath. That the First Enchanter somehow survived but no other mages held at the top of the Tower did, that almost everyone she knew who had been trapped was dead from either mage or Warden, and that one…” She trailed off, voice dying in her throat, and he watched realization bloom in her face.
“Meryell,” he breathed.
Her fingers stroked across his face, nails scraping harshly through his stubble as she lowered her hands to rest them heavily against his shoulders. She was shaking now, he could feel it through the press of the heel of her palms against bone, and he took action without thinking. Grabbing her hips, Cullen lifted her bodily onto his lap while ignoring her little gasp, swinging her around so she sat sideways across his legs, and wrapped his arms around her. One arm held her tight to him, his right hand hooked around her hip, and the other pulled her upper half fully to him. He dropped his head to her shoulder because otherwise he was too close to her face and let out a ragged breath.
She fit. Like she was made to be right there.
After a moment, Meryell’s hands tangled in his tunic, clutching tight as she whispered in a matter-of-fact tone like she was directly quoting Gil, “One templar, trapped at the top of the Tower outside the Harrowing Chamber, survived. Tortured by demons, they say. He was young and the sort that could have been one of those templars mages don’t fear, one of the truly good ones. They changed him, they made him hate us, and no one did anything about it. It was part of why I escaped.”
Cullen shuddered at the words but caught particularly at the last. No one did anything about it. No, no one had, not until he’d drawn his sword on a terrified apprentice who hadn’t done anything wrong and had shouted down the Tower. That was when Greagoir had finally taken action and sent him to Greenfell where he’d weathered out the last half of the Blight. Yet…it was the way Meryell quoted it.
The Tower had had many occupants during his first year there but not so many that one couldn’t feasibly know everyone who lived there by sight if not by name. Gil had known enough about him (even if he couldn’t recall her off the top of his head) to say that he could have been one of the good ones. And them doing nothing for him – which Greagoir had not because Greenfell hadn’t really helped and they’d waited until he’d nearly attacked someone until they did anything – had been part of why she’d left.
That he had meant so much to a mage when he had been at his worst…Maker, he didn’t know what to think of that.
So instead he just nodded his head against Meryell’s shoulder and said hoarsely, “Me.”
“As much as I know you love that word, that does not even begin to describe it.”
That made her giggle, high and loud and edging towards hysterical, and then she asked, “Kirkwall?”
Cullen blinked before lifting his head to say, “You don’t think that was enough for today?”
Meryell shifted then, pushing herself just enough away from him that she could look into his eyes. He looked down at her, idly thinking that it would be so easy to kiss her right then and there…but no. No. They were not there. Not yet.
But…maybe? She wasn’t running away as he feared or looking at him in disgust.
So maybe…maybe someone could care for a half-broken lyrium addict.
“Would you tell me if we left this room and I asked you in an hour?” she pressed. “Tomorrow? The day after that? Tell me truly, Cullen, would you fucking drag this…this horror back out after putting it away again?”
There was only one answer to that.
She nodded sharply and then shifted, for a moment making him think that she was going to rise. Instead she brought a furious blush to his face as she slid one leg across him so she was sitting astride his lap and scooted back forward to wrap her arms around him. He could instantly feel the heat of her pressing down on him even through her breeches and his trousers and felt his body react, cursing silently because she surely felt it. There had never been a comparison with any others – he hadn’t done that sort of barracks game – but he knew that he wasn’t small down there.
Meryell slowly tensed and he started to open his mouth to apologize but she just said, “Well…this probably wasn’t my brightest fucking idea.”
He swallowed thickly before replying, “No. Probably not.”
“Part of you doesn’t seem to mind all that much though.” She said the words softly, almost too low for him to hear them even with how close they were. Cullen looked down at where she was leaning against his chest, finding her looking up at him with a gaze that was both coy and nervous at the same time. His cock twitched in response to that look and he cautiously ran his hands up her legs until he could grasp her hips with both. She gasped and trembled in his lap, her face flushed, her pupils blown wide.
“No,” he replied and it came out more growl than anything. “I don’t mind, Meryell.” Then Cullen dragged in a deep breath and lifted her hips, moving her just enough back that she wasn’t sitting on top of his groin. “But I think,” he continued, “that neither of us is ready for a relationship. Much as we may both want one. And I don’t want you to think that you’re just some notch on my bedpost. You’re more than that.”
He fully expected her to disagree but found her instead nodding in response as she took several deep breaths. “You’re right,” she said. “I…I know I still have things to work through.” Meryell bit her lip when she said it and her perched astride his lower thighs with her lower lip caught between her teeth just made him all the harder. “And…thank you. For saying that about bedposts.”
If he had less self control or respect for her, he’d probably have pinned her to the floor and taken her right there if she was ready and willing just from that look. Instead he just nodded, smiled, and pushed the thoughts about doing just that back away to the depths of his brain.
Cautiously, he lifted a hand and brushed some of her ragged locks of hair behind her ear, one finger idly tracing the topmost edge of the pointed flesh. She flinched, just barely as though she was holding herself back from more, and he noted that to ask her at a later date. Quickly he moved his hand down to her cheek, cupping it as he asked, “Maybe we can help each other?”
Meryell smiled and pressed into his touch, her voice soft as she replied, “I think I’d like that, Cullen.”
She laughed at that then pulled away, rising effortlessly to her feet with his coat swinging around her. Cullen bit back a laugh at the way it hung on her frame, the fur practically swallowing her and the folds of red and gold reaching past her knees. Then his traitorous brain thought of how it would look with her wearing only that while standing above him like she was and he very nearly groaned as his cock pressed hard against the laces of his trousers.
Flicking his eyes up at her, he growled, “You know exactly what kind of trouble I’m having.”
Meryell just arched an eyebrow, attempting to feign innocence but he’d seen the look she was wearing right now plenty of times. She was pleased that he was so uncomfortable. Pleased at the effect she had on him. Then she laughed and reached out to him with both hands, saying, “I’ll stop teasing.”
Snorting, Cullen grasped one of her offered hands and pushed off of the floor with his other as she braced herself and pulled him upright. As he straightened, he smiled down at her while running a hand through his hair and silently cursing the state of it.
“It’s not all you, trust me.”
“Oh?” she asked, eyes lighting up with curiosity. “And here I thought you a fucking saint, Cullen. Are you telling me that there’s a little bit of a dirty mind hiding in that pretty head?”
Growling at the word ‘pretty’ – which was the favorite word applied to him lately by some, particularly Leliana and Josephine – Cullen reached out to touch her hips and slowly push her back against the nearest wall. She let out a gasp as he tucked a knee between her legs and bent enough so he could press her bodily against the wall. It wasn’t comfortable but he didn’t think that he currently had the strength or stability to lift her with withdrawal still wracking his limbs.
Meryell arched her neck, as if inviting him to have access to it, her breath coming in harsh gasps, and he leaned in close. Slowly he breathed out against her skin, trailing the tip of his nose along her neck, before pressing a chaste kiss against the jut of her jaw. Cullen closed his eyes as he breathed, “I am no fucking saint, Meryell.”
“Fucking noted,” she hissed before turning her head to sloppily kiss his forehead. He took that as his moment to stop and pulled slowly away from her despite everything in him screaming take her take her in response to her body’s pliant reaction to his own. Cautiously, he held her steady with one hand while he leaned the other against the wall so they could both regain their bearings.
After a moment, he said, “Kirkwall.”
“Uh-uh, wait a moment,” replied Meryell, holding up a hand for him to stop. She then ducked shakily underneath his arm and moved to her bed, tugging the covers back into some semblance of order since Folke had used them and tossing the myriad pillows she seemed to have towards the head of the bed. As she climbed onto it and lay back against the pillows, his mouth went abruptly dry even though he knew nothing was going to happen.
She gestured almost imperiously towards him, like a queen upon her throne, and then patted the bed. “Lay down,” she instructed. “You can tell me about Kirkwall while I see if I can do something for your head.”
Cullen frowned and she quickly said, “You’re squinting.”
Now that she mentioned it, the slight haze of want and need faded and behind all of it he felt all of the aches and pains come back. His head was pounding fiercely, pain radiating outward from his temples and the base of his skull, and suddenly the bed looked like the most inviting thing in the room. Not that it hadn’t already since Meryell was on it but now it was doubly so.
Sighing, he moved to the bed and cautiously climbed onto it, laying on his back a decent distance from her. Meryell immediately scoffed and tugged at the neck of his tunic, urging him closer to her. “I don’t bite,” she scolded. “Not unless asked.”
“Maker’s breath,” breathed Cullen at that comment before he scooted up the bed. He finally lay just below her, his head almost practically in her lap, and asked, “Here?”
“Yes,” she replied before shifting slightly so she could sink both hands into his hair. He groaned at the contact, eyes fluttering shut, and found himself arching up off of the bed without even thinking about it, pressing his skull upward into her hands and trapping them against the bed. She laughed and he blinked open his eyes to find her leaning over him, her mouth quirked up into a smirk that made him want to kiss her all over again. “I can’t do anything if you have my hands, vhen’an’ara. Now, where is it worst?”
Smiling, he forced himself to relax, laying flat again. Cullen then gestured vaguely towards his temples, saying, “There,” before he tucked his hand underneath his head to where the thick bone of his skull ended. “And there.”
“Normal places for headaches then,” noted Meryell as he let his arm fall back to his side. “Both about the same level of pain?” He nodded and she hummed before saying, “Alright. Folke had me help out a few of our former templars in the company when he didn’t have an extra set of hands or one of the other mages. Sometimes this shit works…sometimes it doesn’t. Depends on the templar.”
“Either way,” Cullen said with a slight smile up at her, catching her eyes, “I think I will be better because it was you doing it.”
She flushed at that but smiled as she moved her hands through his hair, careful not to pull too hard on the curls that inevitably would be surrounding and trying to trap her hands. Her fingertips then brushed over his temples, calluses snatching at the skin briefly before they settled and she put on the slightest amount of pressure as she began to rub her fingers in small circles. He groaned as the very edge of his headache lessened and then vaguely heard her press, “Kirkwall, Cullen.”
Nodding just slightly so as to not upset her ministrations…he started talking. From the beginning, from the very moment he stepped off the boat that had brought him from Ferelden to the Free Marches, he told it all. Including all the worst parts.
Meryell commentated through the whole of it, either by laughing at whatever she thought was funny, humming just low enough that he could hear to keep him going when he paused, or making ribald comments that nearly rivaled that pirate of Hawke’s every once in a while. Halfway through, she’d moved her hands to where she was cupping the back of his head in her palms and worked her fingers in the same fashion over the aching spot at the base of his skull. By the time he was done, recounting when Cassandra had found him still working to help the city recover as he could, she had one hand back at his temples and the other pressed to the top of his head, her fingers stroking back and forth across the curve of his skull.
“Well?” he asked, almost expecting her to move or to tell him to get out. With the things he’d done in Kirkwall, he expected it.
Meryell, as usual, did not do what he expected.
She merely hummed and leaned over him again, pulling her hands from his hair so she could frame his face with them. As her fingers stroked across his cheeks, he blinked at her from upside down and asked, “Meryell?”
“You are sa itathe telsilaan,” she said softly, her expression fond. When he wrinkled his nose in confusion because he didn’t understand a bit of Elven, she laughed. “One who has seen much trouble. But…that doesn’t make you anything less. You are still the Inquisition’s Rajelan, it’s Commander.”
“The things I’ve done…”
“Cannot be erased,” she interrupted. “But you know that. You are not trying to erase what you did or what happened to you. Cullen, you are trying to become better and any who fault you that are fool’s not worth even fucking knowing.”
Shaking his head, he impulsively reached up to cup her cheek, delighted when she did not pull away but instead pressed into his touch. “Whatever did I do,” he asked softly, “for the Maker to send me you?”
Meryell wrinkled her nose at that but she knew he believed just as he knew she did not. “Maybe,” she replied, “we both just got lucky.”
His stomach growled then, echoed by hers a moment later, and they stared at the each other before bursting into laughter. At the same time there was a knock on the cabin door and she called out a hearty Enter before Cullen could catch his breath. Thankfully it was Folke, who probably wouldn’t be too weird about the situation he found them in.
“Been talking all day, have we?” he asked as he closed the door and swung around to show he was balancing a nearly overflowing tray in the other hand. “It’s nearly sunset.”
“Sunset!” exclaimed Cullen, sitting up to look out the high window above the bed. He could indeed see the darkening sky now, something that he hadn’t noticed changing the entire time since he’d woken up. “My men…”
Folke waved a hand flippantly before he used both hands to set the tray on the table. “Never fear, Commander, I very quietly informed your second that you were indisposed today. He seemed to take that in easy stride, made some comment about Hoping that shite he’s putting himself through gives up soon in that dashing Starkhaven accent of his, and was on his merry way.” The man grinned at them then pointed the forefinger of both hands down at the tray. “Now, I’ve got a portion of that stew from the tavern, a few sandwiches made of…something…that I filched from the mess tent, a jug of water, a bottle of my girl’s favorite whiskey, and a whole loaf of Demut’s sweet apple bread.”
“Dem made apple bread?” exclaimed Meryell, clapping her hands together like an excited child. “Fuck, Folke, how did you get a whole damned loaf away from her?”
“The usual way to get anything out of Dem: bribery.” The mage then smiled and added, “Now I’m going to get back out of your way so you can continue whatever you were doing on the bed. Oh, and Commander, I included a little box to make one of those teas I was talking about. I think my girl can show you how to make it.”
“Shoo, baba, and let me take care of my Commander.”
“Your Commander? Oh, well that moved rather quickly didn’t it, girlie?”
Meryell’s eyes narrowed and Cullen chuckled before he leaned over and kissed her cheek in another of those impulsive moves that had been happening today. “No, it didn’t,” he replied to Folke’s comment as he watched her blush, “but that doesn’t negate that I am hers.”
“Cullen,” she breathed softly, her eyes showing some emotion that he couldn’t quite put words to.
Folke let out a low whistle before saying, “Well well…I know when I’m not needed. Be good, da’lenen. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
That comment dragged Meryell’s attention away from Cullen and she turned towards Folke to snarl, “Get the fuck out, you buggering busy body!” The mage just laughed in response before he ducked out of the cabin, closing the door securely behind him. As his footsteps faded, she rubbed the tips of two of her fingers against the bridge of her nose. “He’s a damned menace.”
Shaking his head, Cullen touched her knee to draw her attention back to him. When she finally looked at him curiously, he said gently, “He loves you.”
“‘Course he does,” she replied, “I’m fucking amazing.”
Laughing at that, he nodded. “That you are.”
Meryell’s blush, which hadn’t entirely gone away, returned to full strength at that comment and she hurriedly scooted her way across the bed. She then turned and held out both hands, saying, “Well, come on before all of this shit gets cold. How’s your head? Did it help?”
“Some,” he replied. The ache in his temples was certainly less though the pressure at the base of his skull hadn’t lessened all that much.
“I’ll make some of that tea then.” As she moved across the room towards the hearth, she asked, “Is it always…is it always as bad as this?”
Frowning as he moved to climb off the bed, Cullen replied, “No, this is actually one of the worst times it’s been since I stopped after leaving Kirkwall. Normally, though, it’s not all that bad. Usually I just get one reaction to the lack of lyrium, not almost every one of them at once.” Walking over to the table as he finished, he arranged the chairs next to each other before he began portioning out the food, using a knife that Folke had apparently also included on the tray to cut the sandwiches in half. There wasn’t another bowl for the stew, he noticed, but there were two spoons.
He hadn’t noticed how dark it was in the room until the firelight bloomed from behind his back, making his shadow dance along the wall that held the door. Then a hand lightly touched his back and Meryell leaned past him to reach for the jug of water as she said, “He’s lucky I keep those tin cups, otherwise we’d both be drinking out of this.” When he arched an eyebrow at her and flicked his eyes towards the whiskey bottle – which was what he’d expected her to grab – she chuckled. “Water first with food, then tea for you, then we can break into the whiskey.”
Chuckling in return, he said, “Fine, fine. I follow the thief’s obviously superior knowledge of these things.”
They smiled at each other as they settled at the table, elbows bumping periodically and their knees pressed up against each other from the way he’d set the chairs. The first thing to be devoured were the sandwiches, which turned out to be slices of mutton with something spread on the inside of the bread that neither of them could identify (but was delicious). As they finished those, the kettle whistled and Meryell rose to get it, returning to swiftly put together the hot water and tea leaves from the little box Folke had left in his empty cup. When she sat back down, it was with her legs casually tossed across his lap, and he rested a hand on one bare shin when he didn’t require both hands for the bowl of stew as they passed it back and forth between each other.
“Now,” Meryell said, as they finished and she reached for the small cloth wrapped package on the tray, revealing it to be the aforementioned bread, “the proper way to eat Dem’s apple bread is with milk but that’s one of those things the Inquisition seems short of. So we’ll just have to make do.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he replied as she watched her use the knife to cut two slices off the end before taking the one she handed to him. He sniffed lightly before raising it to his mouth, catching the warm scent of freshly baked bread (despite the loaf now being cold), apples, and cinnamon. As he bit into it, Cullen closed his eyes and hummed in pleasure.
“Fucking good,” he corrected.
Meryell laughed, shaking her head as she said, “I am such a bad influence on your language! You didn’t cuss a lick until I came around, did you?”
Shrugging, he replied, “Not really,” before he picked up his cup and cautiously sipped the hot liquid. It was a bit more bitter than the tea he remembered from his childhood or what he’d made himself in Kirkwall (he preferred a healthy portion of sugar in his but he’d make do without for now until he could ask Folke if that might interfere with the tea) but as it ran down his throat to pool in his belly, he did lose the very edge of his headache. Blinking down at the cup, Cullen took another drink before saying, “Folke knows his stuff.”
“As annoying as my baba can be sometimes, he is very skilled with what meager talent he possesses. And he says his mother was Chasind which is how he learnt all of the herbal remedies he knows that no one else does.”
Blinking, he tilted the cup slightly towards himself before asking, “Does that include this one?”
As Meryell nodded he let out a huff of breath. He supposed it wasn’t surprising in it’s own way since the Chasind had their own mages.
Then he turned to look at her and said, “Baba. What does that mean?”
Chuckling, she replied, “It’s Elven for father. We may not have met until I was fifteen but Folke took care of me in the company. He also wasn’t like the hahren at the alienage who wanted me to just forget everything my babae, my blood father, taught me. Folke wanted to learn it too and he wanted me to know whatever I could use to my advantage since well…” Meryell trailed off as she waved a hand before finishing, “You know as well as I fucking do that elves in Thedas are treated like shit.”
“I do,” he agreed. Then Cullen frowned and noted, “I was under the impression that the elves in alienages didn’t know much Elven, that that was purely knowledge among the Dalish? Mind you, I don’t know much about the life of elves in alienages other than seeing what I did in Kirkwall on the occasion that my duties took me there.”
Meryell just smiled. “That’s the normal way of it. My babae, he was Dalish born and only came to the South Reach alienage because he was captured by templars.”
“Templars?” he repeated, surprised. “What did templars have to do with a random Dalish elf?”
“If I tell you, it goes no further than us?” Her nose wrinkled and her lip curled as she snarled, “I don’t want that el’u’verelan to know anymore about me than she already does. Not until she learns to stop digging so deep that she scrapes bedrock.”
“Ehl…ooo…ver…eh…lan?” Cullen echoed cautiously, trying to sound out the word exactly as she said it. “I’m not sure what the translation of that is but I’m going to guess by the anger in your voice that you’re talking about Leliana.”
Sighing, she nodded. “Yes,” Meryell answered. “There is no word for spy or bard in Elven so the equivalent I’ve always used is secret taker.” She then smiled and added, “You would be my el’u’amelan, my secret keeper.”
“Ehl…ooo…am…eh…lan,” he said slowly before he leaned in close to her, his fingers stroking idly across the skin of her bare leg as he moved his hand back to it. “I told you that your secrets remain your own with me, Meryell. I still mean that. Do you doubt that now?”
“Din! No! I don’t…I trust you, Cullen. I just…” Shaking her head, she continued, “I’m not…I’m not used to talking about them, about my parents. After I left South Reach I tried to put it behind me, everything that happened. When I spoke of them to you after that meeting before before I left was the first time I’ve talked about them I’ve at least five years. And that’s being fucking generous.”
She paused for a moment, biting her lip, and he just watched her while continuing to gently stroke her leg. Meryell then wrapped her arms around herself after running a hand back through her hair, making it spike wildly upward as she stared off into nothing.
“My mamae dying the way she did and then finding babae in the street…I was eleven that year, Cullen. I never had anything but them. Mamae was born in South Reach but my mamaela – my grandmother – she was from Highever, brought in for one of those arranged marriages to my babaela that they do in the alienages to keep blood fresh. They died when I was still little, too small to even remember them. And babae was Dalish so, even knowing the name of the clan he was originally from, there was no guarantee of ever finding them again since clans always travel.”
“Who took care of you?” asked Cullen gently, feeling his heart ache for her. Even with the years between, the death of her parents still seemed to weigh on her so much. Which, to be honest, was a thing he could understand entirely given that he had only in the past few years come to actually realize how disconnected he’d been when Mia had written him of their parents deaths during the Blight. It was only recently that he had honestly mourned them.
She shrugged one shoulder before replying, “The hahren gave me shelter and food but…beyond that I took care of myself. You asked about babae and the templars though.”
“I did,” he replied, “but I want to hear it all. I should if I am to be your…eh-loo-am-eh-lan, yes? Did I pronounce that right?”
“Vin. Yes.” Meryell then smiled. “And you’re a little slow at it but otherwise correct. Elven takes time to learn. It took Folke several years before he could even properly string together a sentence.” She then took a breath before saying, “My babae…”
“Yes. He was a youth not many years older than I was when I joined the Fangs and out beyond the clan’s camp with his best friend. They got a little too close to a village and, as some humans are wont to do, someone told a tale to the templars about them doing magic. I’m sure there was a fucking slur in there because fuck all if some can’t call us something polite half the time. Anyway, they caught my father but not his friend and took him to Kinloch to be tested for magic.”
Cullen nodded slowly before saying, “And when they discovered he didn’t have magic, I’m guessing a patrol dropped him off in South Reach at the alienage while on their way to a reported mage child.”
She dipped her head in a nod before she continued.
“The hahren of the time took him in. Babae tried to escape many times to try and make it back to his clan but eventually the hahren made the point firm that by then they were probably long gone. That was when he abandoned his family name.”
Blinking, he said, “Wait…Verlen isn’t your actual family name?”
Meryell chuckled darkly as she replied, “No. Babae was originally Terys Arauven from the Suinasvenla. Verlen means taken child. So he became Terys Verlen, mamae became Sarra Verlen when they were married, and I am Meryell Verlen. Sometimes I’ll use Arauven for a job when I don’t want people tracking me by my real name or even my mamae’s original name, Ivun. ”
“Why not permanently change it?”
“Because…” She paused for a long moment then continued, “Because it was the name babae chose. To take the one he abandoned fully felt too much like a betrayal.” Meryell then grinned brightly at him. “Plus it’s fucking hard for anyone who’s not versed in Elven to say. You got off easy, Rutherford.”
Chuckling as he nodded, Cullen decided to steer the topic onward. “So being that he was Dalish, your father taught you Elven.”
Nodding back, she said, “And Dalish teachings. Mamae didn’t approve of it – she thought it a foolish thing to hold onto the past as tightly as the Dalish do – but she let babae have his way.” A smile flashed across her face, bright as a star and gone as blindingly fast as it had appeared, but he caught it. Cullen swore right then that he would figure out how to summon that smile more often. “It was our secret language, mine and babae’s.”
“Did the hahren know how much it meant to you? When he took you in?”
“He knew. Everyone in the alienage thought he still held onto the old ways as they called them.” Meryell snorted before she continued, “They were ever so wrong. My babae came to realize just how detached the Dalish have become, how proud and arrogant they sound, as he saw both worlds. So he taught me only the teachings that he thought best and strove to make something better. That’s what he always told me: whatever you do, ara dharlin, make it better than what came before.”
Smiling, Cullen softly said, “It sounds like he was a smart man.”
She just smiled back sadly in response and murmured, “He was.”
Rubbing her leg for a moment in silence, he asked, “That Elven he called you…arr-a…da…har…lin. A pet name?”
Meryell laughed at that and replied, “Oh yes. A very Ferelden pet name at that.” He cast her a confused look at that response and she laughed all the harder for a moment before she spoke again. “Ara dharlin is essentially baby hound.”
Cullen felt a grin stretching his face at that and laughed as he said, “Pup! Your father called you Pup!” He remembered his own father calling him and his siblings that and knew personally that it was a common endearment amongst his own countrymen. Hawke had used the name for her own younger brother in his hearing once or twice, before and after Carver had joined the templars.
“I told you it was very Ferelden!”
“I apologize for not believing the thief’s word,” he intoned seriously while trying to quell his laughter, inclining his head respectfully towards her. Then he cocked his head and asked, “Does Folke have one for you?”
Nodding, she replied, “Ara vherain. My lion cub. Because I was…oh, what was it he said…as fierce and fearless as any mountain cat when we met.” Meryell then smiled tightly at him and asked, “Off topic…we still have that bottle of whiskey. And you seem to be done with your tea.”
Cullen nodded slowly, considering whether he should stay to drink some of that bottle with her. He didn’t want to leave by any means but…he had spent one night already and the vast majority of a day inside her cabin. Albeit part of it was in recovery from his withdrawals but still…the sensible part of him felt it was time wasted when he could have been doing something else (even if logically his withdrawals wouldn’t have allowed him to do so).
The more emotional part was content to stay. Not the least because Meryell was warmly tucked next to him with her legs in his lap. And it surely wouldn’t hurt for him to stay longer.
Turning his cup upside down, he tapped it against the tray Folke had brought to try and dislodge the tea leaves that clung to the inside. Seeing it wasn’t going to happen, he brought his other hand up from where it was resting on her leg in order to help with scraping the now slightly gunky leaves from the cup. That done, Cullen sat it in front of her with a smile.
“I think whiskey is just the thing after today,” he replied.
She beamed at him in response and leaned forward to grab the bottle, pouring a hearty portion into each of their cups. Picking hers up, she held it up and out towards him as she said sharply, “On’vun!” Cullen blinked at her for a moment before he picked up his own cup and clinked the side against hers, guessing that the word was an Elven toast.
“Cheers,” he said with a smile before lifting his cup to his mouth. Meryell grinned as she did the same and as they both set their cups back down on the table, he asked, “Was that a toast?”
“It means good life,” she replied. Then she twisted her right leg in his lap to dig her toes against his side before saying, “And since I gave you a story about my babae, I want to hear a story about yours.”
Arching his eyebrows, Cullen asked, “Is it story for a story tonight, dear thief?”
“Perhaps,” she replied with a cocky grin that was all teeth.
“In that case I think you’re a bit behind but I suppose I’ll be magnanimous and ignore that. For tonight at least.”
Laughing, Meryell gave him an exaggerated bow from the waist up. “Why thank you, kind sir.”
“I like to think I’m generous,” he shot back with a grin. When he got a giggle in response, Cullen launched into one of the earliest memories he had of his father where he and Mia were both small enough still to ride on his shoulders at the same time and Branson wasn’t even born yet. That story led to another and another and then he paused to let her tell one that something he’d said had reminded her of. Then he’d begun another as she refilled their cups for the third or fourth time, followed by her having another…and the night continued like that until the fire was banked low on the hearth, the whiskey bottle was empty, and his alcohol fuzzy brain registered that the first rays of light were filtering in through the high windows that faced the east.
“Maker’s breath,” he muttered as he wiped a hand down his face. “I can’t believe we…Meryell?”
Turning, Cullen felt as if the whole world softened just that little bit. Meryell was still upright in her chair but she was sound asleep, her head turned towards the back and her mouth just a little open to let out the occasional tiny snore. She looked as at peace now as she had during those last days he’d sat with her while she was still bed-bound from her injury.
But that chair was going to murder her back.
Carefully extricating her legs from his lap, he rose to his feet and wavered for a moment before he refound his balance. For a moment he pondered whether his plan was really a good idea then shrugged the doubt aside. He felt better now being drunk than he had earlier while sober. Certainly well enough even with withdrawals to pick her up.
Cullen cautiously slid his arms underneath her and Meryell shifted, mumbling nonsense that may or may not have been Elven in her sleep but she didn’t wake. He let out a breath of relief and lifted her, carrying her easily across the cabin to her bed. As he laid her down he realized that she was on top of her blankets but his coat was tossed over one of the headboard posts, though he wasn’t sure exactly when she had taken it off. When they were on the bed?
Shaking his head, he tucked it around her and brushed hair away from her face a little clumsily. Impulsively, he bent to kiss her forehead and as he pulled away found a callused hand cupping his face.
“Stay,” Meryell breathed, her eyes still closed, seemingly asleep beyond the fact that she’d just spoken. Cullen blinked down at her, ready to refuse, to state that he really should go back to his tent.
That, of course, wasn’t what came out of his mouth.
He blamed the alcohol and exhaustion. And the fact that he rather honestly didn’t want to leave.
“Yes, dear thief,” he murmured. She made a wordless happy noise and released him, wriggling her way a little across the bed to make room for him. He paused for a moment before he climbed onto the bed and lay on his side, just watching her for a moment before he reached out to loop an arm around her waist. Meryell gave a little exhalation as Cullen dragged her across the bed so she was tightly pressed against his chest and opened her eyes to look at him.
“Nydha,” she said softly. “Good night, Cullen. Son era. Sleep well.”
Smiling, he pressed a kiss to her temple then buried his nose in her hair as he closed his eyes, breathing, “Son err-ah,” back at her. Meryell let out a little huff of laughter in response, turning her head to the side and tilting it back so she could bump her nose sharply against his chin. Her breathing then evened back out and he knew that she was asleep once again.
Cullen smiled and let his own breathing slowly even out, feeling himself already drifting towards the yawning abyss. He could only hope that all of the talk of the day didn’t summon any more of his old nightmares as talking about what had happened to him was wont to do. In the end, he didn’t need to worry about it.
When he woke hours later, Cullen realized that he had slept without dreams or nightmares for the first time in too long.
asha’lan : daughter
felasil : fool
sa itathe telsilaan : one who has seen much trouble (sa = one, itha + -the = seen, telsila + -aan = many trouble)
rajelan : commander
baba / babae = father
da’lenen : children (da’len = child, -en = multiple)
el’u’verelan : secret taker (el’u = secret + verelan = taker)
el’u’amelan : secret keeper (el’u = secret + amelan = keeper, protector, guardian)
mamaela : grandmother
babaela : grandfather
arauven : ara = my + nuven = wish, desire, want, greed
suinasvenla : suinast (suina) = silent + venla (ven) = steps
din : no
vin : yes
verlen : taken child
ara dharlin : pup
on’vun : good life
nydha : good night
son era : sleep well
I figure that surely someone somewhere in Thedas has figured out that some people have trouble seeing and has figured out magnifying glasses. Thus, Folke’s spectacles are basically the earliest equivalent of glasses: rivet spectacles. (http://www.college-optometrists.org/en/college/museyeum/online_exhibitions/spectacles/rivet.cfm)